Residents of Los Angeles lose confidence in police, poll says


LOS ANGELES -- The police corruption scandal is contributing to a malaise in Los Angeles, helping to raise questions about the city's health and image, devastating public impressions of the Los Angeles Police Department and fueling strong sentiment for the appointment of an independent commission to investigate the crisis.

Those findings, culled from a new Los Angeles Times poll, suggest that the scandal has had a deep effect on Los Angeles' sense of itself, sowing doubts despite a strong economy and continuing reductions in crime. Three out of four residents described themselves as "very upset" or "somewhat upset" by the stream of revelations emerging from the LAPD in recent months, including charges that officers shot, beat and framed suspects and committed other crimes.

A majority of city residents rejects the contention -- advanced by Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Mayor Richard Riordan and others -- that the misdeeds are the work of a few bad officers. Fifty-one percent of city residents disagree with that notion; instead, they believe the problems are "symptomatic of a larger problem within the Police Department." Another 39 percent believe they are "isolated incidents and are not representative of the Los Angeles Police Department as a whole."

Independent panel favored

According to the poll, 75 percent of those surveyed also think an independent commission should be convened to investigate the scandal. Just 12 percent say that the city's civilian Police Commission, whose members are appointed by Riordan and which sets policy for the LAPD, should handle that inquiry.

David Hanna, a respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview, put into words the frustration felt by many residents confronted with one disturbing revelation after another emanating from the LAPD.

"If you can't trust the police and depend on them, you're in trouble," he said. "I just don't know how this could happen." The Times poll interviewed 1,219 city residents from March 29 through Wednesday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Nowhere are the results of that poll more striking than in the public's impression of the LAPD. Residents like and respect the individual officers in their communities, and 55 percent of respondents say they believe most police are honest and hardworking. But just 36 percent have a favorable impression of the way the LAPD as a whole does its job. That split in some ways resembles public sentiments about Congress, where people often express appreciation for their own elected representative, but distaste for the institution collectively.

In the case of the LAPD, however, Los Angeles residents have turned against their police department with a force and breadth not seen since the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Rodney King beating.

Low point in 1991

At its nadir, the LAPD's job-approval rating plummeted to 34 percent in March 1991, the month that officers were caught on videotape beating King into submission. At that point, 59 percent of Los Angeles residents registered disapproval of their police department. Respondents to that survey also registered extreme dismay at the videotape: 76 percent said they were very upset by what they saw, a far more visceral reaction than responses so far to the more slowly unfolding Rampart Division allegations.

In the years since the King beating, the department's public image generally has improved, though it took another hit after the LAPD's confused -- and, in some minds, cowardly -- response to the 1992 riots, which broke out after the officers were acquitted in the King beating. The department then steadily began to win back the public's faith to the point that nearly two-thirds of city residents said in a survey last year that they approved of the department's performance. Thirteen months later, that number has dropped by nearly half.

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